Lately, if you wanted an Italian car it was either a Maserati, Lamborghini or Ferrari. Nice, but most people can t afford the taxes on them let alone the actual car or its maintenance. Now there s a third option- Fiat. Yes, Fiat is now back in America, at least in Los Angeles. Locally there will be dealerships in Seattle, Kirkland and Tacoma beginning in October. Let s all head out to Buca di Beppo and celebrate.

In their return Fiat is starting small, both in lineup and footprint of the car. The only vehicle for now is the 500, affectionately known in Italy as the Cinquecento or Topolino. At a petite 139.6 inches it s nearly 7 inches shorter than a MINI Cooper.

Choose from 3 models, Pop, Sport and Lounge. Coming in time for summer is a cabrio version, early in 2012 the high performance Abarth version arrives. Think VW GTI left in a dryer too long.

A Little Heritage (Pun Intended)

The original 1957 Nuevo 500 is the vehicle that brought everyday transportation back to a post-war Italy and it remains an icon today. The doors opened backwards and the air-cooled engine was in the rear, much like a VW Beetle. Unlike the Vee Dub it never became popular in the US. Fiat brought it back in modern form in 2007.

The 500 best known to Americans is the character Luigi in the Pixar movie Cars . The fashionable tire shop owner sells Lightning McQueen a slick set of whitewalls for his date with a Porsche. So much for Italian style...

The 2012 model recalls the classic style and affordable mission of the original but the engine now rides in the front and the doors open the way people expect. It s also larger to accommodate today s bigger people (curse you Buca di Beppo). 500s sold in North America are made in Mexico and get a number of changes over the Euro version. Most important is a six-speed automatic transmission and enhanced noise, vibration and sound refinements. There s also a larger gas tank and four-wheel disc brakes. Finally the rear suspension is redesigned, apparently its better dynamics and the noise refinements are being adapted to European version.

101 Horsepower

Yes, 101. That doesn t sound like a lot but at about 2,400 pounds the 500 is hardly a heavyweight. It s produced by a 1.4-liter MultiAir 4-cylinder that prefers premium fuel. In addition to the automatic gearbox there s a five-speed manual with an odd feel to both the shifter and the clutch pedal (in my opinion anyways). Test drive them both but my money is on the automatic which is standard in the high-end Lounge.

MultiAir is technology that allows for infinitely variable timing of the air entering the pistons to maximize combustion depending on how hard the driver is pushing the go pedal. The intake valve operation is driven by oil pressure actuators that are triggered by electronic control. The benefits? It offers up to 10 percent greater fuel efficiency and power while cutting CO2 emissions up to 10 percent.

If you want a fast Italian go with a Ferrari. 500 embraces the relaxed Italian lifestyle with a 0-60 time of just over 9 seconds, about the same as a Prius. Floor it and the engine note cuts into the interior but it s pleasant, not intrusive. Overall this is a somewhat quiet car when cruising, especially when compared to Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent (some might even be cross-shopping the smart ForTwo). Diminutive dimensions make 500 perfect for slipping through heavy city traffic, pulling tight u-turns and claiming parking spots too tight for a Honda Civic.

Small cars often lose their appeal on the highway but at 70 miles an hour 500 feels pretty solid and buttoned down, it does not get blown around willy-nilly. It s nimble and fun in the corners too though not as compelling as a MINI. Fuel economy is 27 city, 34 highway with the automatic (30/38 with the five-speed manual). Larger cars like Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus meet or beat those numbers. Still, 500 does well in the smiles per gallon category.

Any Room Inside?

Surprisingly, yes. Those up front will not feel cramped and they should enjoy the simple but elegant design. The vintage Italian style with Vespa scooter-like cues gets a modern twist. The instrument panel matches the body color (customize it if you d like. The single round gauge sports a speedometer on the outer ring with a tachometer within it. My biggest gripe is with a steering wheel that feels good in hand but doesn t adjust for reach.

While photographing the 500, a number of people came up to check it out. To a person, everyone that sat in the surprisingly substantial leather chairs touched, or rather, caressed the dashboard (check out the video). It might be hard plastic but the look remains upscale, maybe because it s honest about its intent.

The automatic climate control is single zone, 500 is probably not big enough for dual zone anyway. Little storage cubbies around the cabin help, only the driver gets an armrest. The 500 Lounge gets a good but not awesome Bose sound system.

Fiat uses a system to connect phones and iPods called Blue & Me that s similar to Ford s SYNC though not as powerful. Insert a thumb drive into the USB slot inside the glovebox and it records data about your driving style. Plug that drive into a home computer and a website analyzes the data right down to the CO2 emissions level for each trip and offers up advice for better fuel economy. A hint - don t stomp on the throttle at every stop light.

Less Roomy in the Back

You don t expect the back seat to be very spacious do you? Good, it s not. Neither is MINIs. There are belts for two smaller humans in the rear, headroom keeps those 5 5 and up from sitting up straight. Passengers with legs will find there s not much room for them. At least there are a couple cup holders and the map pockets are deep to help organize things.

I m on a press launch so I m far away from my bundles of TP supply but it s easy to eyeball the cargo hold as a two to three pack space. Cavernous is not the word best used here but come on, it s a small hatchback and MINI, Yaris, Accent and Rio aren t much better. Most buyers will treat this as a two-seat vehicle with room for four in a pinch. Fold the split rear seats and 500 can hold a big Costco run though the load floor is uneven.

The Small Revolution

The Fiat folks point out that we like compact things these days- smaller phones, tiny cameras, and iPads. But Americans get intimidated in small cars. For piece of mind, 500 is built with an ultra high-strength steel structure to protect passengers. A knee airbag for the driver enhances the other expected six. At the press conference a 500 that endured a 40 MPH frontal crash was proudly displayed, its passenger compartment and windshield generally unscathed and the front doors fully operational.

Fiat was not known for their reliability back in the 70s and 80s but young Millennials- the target for this car- will not know that. These are modern times and Fiat is backing their quality pledge with a four year, 50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper warrantee and three years or 36,000 miles of free maintenance that includes wear and tear items.

No Two Alike

With 14 exterior colors, 14 interior colors and a slew of accessories, there are some 500,000 different ways to build this car. In fact Fiat themselves wonder if there will be any two exactly the same. They believe 500 will skew more male than the VW New Beetle and that Ferrari owners are prime buyers because of the Italian connection.

The fashion forward 500 has one more attractive quality, price. A Pop model starts at just over $16,000 with destination, the high-end Lounge cracks 20K. That s a little more than a comparable Toyota Yaris, thousands less than a MINI. If Fiat has other compelling cars like this, I say welcome back. The small 500 should make a big splash.

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